December 22, 2017

Between Two Worlds: Indian Imprisonment at Castillo de San Marcos National Monument

In 1878, a Kiowa warrior named Guháude (Wolf Robe) drew a self-portrait. In it he stands at the center, his hair long and loose, wearing only a loincloth. The sun, moon, and a falling star alight high over his head. On his right side stands a buffalo beside a tipi and a forest; on his left stands a spotted cow, a building, and a farm. Guháude offers a pipe to both creatures. Above the figures he has carefully written his alias in the English alphabet, “Wohaw.”

Guháude sketched his now-famous self-portrait shortly after his release from Fort Marion, where he had been held as a prisoner of war for three years. During that time the Kiowa warrior—along with more than seventy other men (in addition to two women and a child) representing the Kiowa, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Comanche, and Caddo peoples—endured a blend of punishment and reeducation with the singular goal of assimilation.

Dressed and drilled as if they were new army recruits, the prisoners were taught to read, write, and speak English while receiving a Christian education from local volunteer teachers. The “Florida Boys” were even permitted to leave the fort on occasion for excursions, where they quickly became tourist attractions. Escape was not an option; the prisoners were well over a thousand miles from their homelands and families.

At the end of the three years the captives were given a choice: they could return west to a reservation, or go north to attend school. It was at this juncture when Guháude drew his self-portrait, divided between two seemingly irreconcilable worlds.

Cheyenne and Kiowa prisoners at Fort Marion.

photo by: National Park Service, Castillo de San Marcos National Monument

A group of Cheyenne and Kiowa prisoners at Fort Marion during the second period of Indian internment (1875-1878). Lieutenant Richard Pratt, a fervent proponent of assimilation and reeducation, stands in the back row furthest to the left.

The Florida Boys were not the first Native American prisoners at Fort Marion, nor would they be the last. Over the course of fifty years in the nineteenth century, Fort Marion, now known as Castillo de San Marcos, saw three separate periods of Indian internment. In 1837, during the lengthy Second Seminole War, dozens of Seminoles were taken prisoner, including the prominent leaders Osceola and Coacoochee (Wild Cat). Coacoochee and nineteen other prisoners weren’t held long before they successfully freed themselves from the fort in a now legendary escape.

The Florida Boys arrived next in 1875 and were placed under the supervision of Lieutenant Richard Henry Pratt. Regarded as a “progressive” of the period, the vague instructions he was given as to what to do with the prisoners left him free to experiment with educational regimes and programs intended to, in his words, “[k]ill the Indian in him, and save the man.” His experiments inspired him to open the infamous Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania—the first off-reservation boarding school for indigenous youth in the United States—in 1879, a year following the release of the Plains Indian prisoners.

The fort is a tangible reminder of loss, displacement, and indefinite imprisonment without trial.

The last captives of Fort Marion arrived by crowded train cars in 1886—over five hundred men, women, and children, predominantly Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apache from Arizona. The prisoners of war included the bands and relatives of prominent Apache leaders, including the family of Geronimo. The fort, meant to only temporarily hold 150 people while at maximum capacity, was overwhelmingly crowded as the prisoners were confined to an impromptu city of canvas tents on top of the fort’s gun deck.

Citing these conditions and the need to educate the imprisoned children, United States officials removed over a hundred Apache youth from Fort Marion to the nascent Carlisle School, breaking the promise made to the captives that families would be kept together. Over a quarter of the children sent to Carlisle would die there of disease.

Group of Apache prisoners inside Fort Marion.

photo by: National Park Service, Castillo de San Marcos National Monument

A group of Apache prisoners inside Fort Marion (now Castillo de San Marcos), circa 1886.

Due to the overcrowding and lack of resources, continued imprisonment at Fort Marion was considered unsustainable. Less than a year after they arrived, the prisoners were transferred in 1887 to the Mount Vernon Barracks in Alabama through 1894, when they were again moved to Fort Sill, Oklahoma. They would remain prisoners there until 1914, when they were given a choice to either move onto the Mescalero Apache Reservation in New Mexico or settle on allotments in Oklahoma. Those that chose the latter would eventually become the Fort Sill Apache Tribe.

Only ten years after the Apache prisoners were “freed” from their decades-long internment, Fort Marion, their early prison, was declared a national monument. It was the first site to receive federal funding specifically earmarked towards historic preservation.

“If buildings like the Castillo aren’t protected, if the public doesn’t have access to them, who will tell the stories?”

Amelia Vela

Today, Fort Marion is better known by its original Spanish name, Castillo de San Marcos. The Castillo, completed in 1695 by the Spanish, is the oldest existing fort in the United States and the only true siege fort built using coquina, a natural limestone consisting of millions of tiny shells. The national monument resides in St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest continually inhabited European settlement in the continental United States.

For over a hundred years, with only a brief interlude courtesy of the British, the fort reliably defended the capital of Spanish Florida. Following the signing of the 1819 Adams-Onís Treaty, the fort became an American military base and was renamed Fort Marion.

Nowadays the Castillo has been restored to its former colonial glory. Reenactments of Spanish and British military machinations are common, as are historic weapons demonstrations and other events. The history of Indian internments is less prominent. Amelia Vela, a park ranger and education and youth outreach coordinator at the Castillo, says, “We can’t talk about these as isolated events, so the interpretation is a lot more involved. It’s a complex history and our exhibits are limited in what they can say and what they can do.”

Exterior view of Castillo de San Marcos with bastions.

photo by: National Park Service, Castillo de San Marcos National Monument

Each corner of the Castillo features a diamond-shaped projection called a bastion, which served to prevent blind spots for guards. These features were part of the original Spanish design of the fort.

Over the last decades, however, the staff at the Castillo have made a concerted effort to share the loss and survival endured by Native captives with visitors, many of whom aren’t aware that any indigenous prisoners of war were held at the fort. Vela continues, “Telling these stories is now a part of our foundation document—a part of why we exist and what we’re here to do—and there are a lot of dedicated staff willing to preserve the history and share it with the public.”

In addition to exhibits in the cells where prisoners were held, the Castillo also puts on programming throughout the year, and increases the number of events during Native American Heritage Month in November. Last year the fort hosted Cheyenne artist James Black, whose ancestors were imprisoned at the fort during the second internment and pioneered the drawing style popularly known as ledger art, the style utilized by Guháude in his self-portrait.

The fort has also hosted programs and tours for the Native communities impacted by the imprisonments, and is currently working collaboratively with local Flagler College on a research project to gain more insights into this important period of history at the Castillo.

The time their people endured at the Castillo as captives has indelibly shaped the contemporary Seminole, Kiowa, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Comanche, Caddo, and Apache communities.

The fort is a tangible reminder of loss, displacement, and indefinite imprisonment without trial.

Vela recalls one particularly powerful interaction: “We had an Apache group that brought their young people here in 2012 right after the new exhibits were put in that told parts of the Apache story. One of the young boys tried to reach out to touch an engraving on the cell wall [left by a former Apache prisoner] when a woman in the group stopped him. She said to him, ‘Don’t do that, that’s our story, and who will tell our story if that’s not there?’”

“If buildings like the Castillo aren’t protected, if the public doesn’t have access to them, who will tell the stories?”

At the time of their captivity, the prisoners were alternatively reviled, patronizingly pitied, and viewed as local curiosities. How the prisoners regarded their own imprisonment while at the Castillo, however, cannot be singularly described. Even with the plethora of drawings, etchings, photographs, letters, articles, and reports from the period, no one narrative can capture the multitude of experiences. In his self-portrait, for example, was Guháude choosing a side, or bringing the two together?

Engraving left by an Apache prisoner.

photo by: National Park Service, Castillo de San Marcos National Monument

An engraving left behind by one of the Castillo's Apache prisoners, held at the fort from 1886-1887.

Despite the injustices inflicted at the fort, the internments failed to extinguish the prisoners’ determination to survive, either physically or culturally. For the descendants of those imprisoned at the Castillo, the fort is a reminder of tremendous suffering, but also a testament to the endurance and tenacity of their ancestors. The former prison is interwoven in the personal histories of Native peoples across the United States, just as it is a part of the broader American story.

For Guháude and the other captives, their internment at the Castillo denoted an immense, immediate shift in their lives and lifestyles, both real and symbolic. Over a dozen children were born at Castillo de San Marcos, then Fort Marion, while the Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apache were imprisoned at the site. The first child born was to Seegotsi, known as Pedro Juan, and his wife Ittatti. They gave their infant girl, born a prisoner of war, two names—the Apache name Naizha, and the English name Marion.

By: Colleen Truskey

Have a story idea that might be interesting and engaging for a national audience? Read our Contributor Guidelines and email us at

More posts by guest authors (323)

We believe all Americans deserve to see their history in the places that surround us. As a nation, we have work to do to fill in the gaps of our cultural heritage.

Let's Get to Work